Bishop John Jeremiah McRaith, the third bishop of the Diocese of Owensboro from 1982 to 2009, died the morning of Sunday, March 19, 2017 at age 82.
John Jeremiah was born in Hutchinson, Minn., on Dec. 6, 1934 to Arthur Luke McRaith and Marie Hanley McRaith. He grew up with three siblings; James, Jane and Margaret Mary.
John attended grade school in a one-room school in rural Minnesota and attended high school at St. John Preparatory in Collegeville, Minn., graduating in 1952. He began his higher education at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa, and went on to study at Mount St. Bernard Seminary also in Dubuque. This was followed with some post-graduate studies at Mankato State University in Mankato, Minn.
He was ordained to the diocesan priesthood on Feb. 21, 1960 by Bishop Alphonse J. Schladweiler and was first assigned as associate pastor of St. Mary Parish in Sleepy Eye, Minn., from 1960-64. He was then made pastor of St. Michael Parish in Milroy, Minn., from 1964-67, followed by his service as pastor of St. Leo in the town of St. Leo, Minn., from 1967-68.
He returned to Sleepy Eye in 1968 to serve as both administrator of St. Mary Parish and as superintendent of St. Mary High School. Fr. McRaith served in both capacities until 1971.
In Feb. 1971 he became pastor of St. Mary Parish; a role he held until December of that year. In 1972 he was appointed director of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference – headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa – and held that position until 1978.
Fr. McRaith’s dedication to rural life fueled his desire to travel around the country and address rural issues, social justice and the importance of a rural ministry. Becoming a recognized authority on Catholic rural life, he spent these years giving conferences and workshops in many dioceses across America. Groups he encountered and worked with included the coal miners of Appalachia and the pulp workers of Louisiana.
From 1978 until 1982 he served as vicar general and chancellor in the Diocese of New Ulm, Minn. His vicar general role included serving as coordinator of diocesan staff, where he worked closely with the people involved in all diocesan ministries.
In July 1979 he became director of the Pastoral Office for Personnel in the Diocese of New Ulm, serving as executive director of the priests’ personnel board. He retained his roles as vicar general and chancellor during this busy time.
In the spring of 1982 Bishop Henry J. Soenneker resigned as Bishop of the Diocese of Owensboro, Ky., and Fr. McRaith was tapped to take his place. Bishop-elect McRaith arrived in Owensboro that October.
On Dec. 15, 1982 he was ordained and installed as the third bishop of Owensboro by Archbishop Thomas C. Kelly, OP, of the Archdiocese of Louisville. Bishop McRaith’s motto was “Jesus calls us to serve and not be served;” in fact, “To Serve” was inscribed inside his episcopal ring.
Bishop McRaith’s next 27 years of service as head of the Diocese of Owensboro were times of great growth in the diocese and western Kentucky community as a whole. Starting in 1983 the Office of Lay Ministry was established in the diocese, and the marriage tribunal was reorganized with Fr. Joe Mills named as judicial vicar. Bishop McRaith was also directly involved with welcoming the RENEW program, introduced by Sister Sharon Grant, RSM, into the diocese. Other diocese offices formed that first year were the Offices of Administration, Catholic Schools, Charismatic Renewal, School Food Services, Ecumenism, Family Life, Music, Ongoing Formation of Priests, Religious Education, Social Concerns, Spiritual Life, Vocations, Worship and Youth Ministry. Also in that first year Bishop McRaith witnessed the closing of Mount St. Joseph Academy in Maple Mount, run by the Ursuline Sisters of Mount St. Joseph, and saw it reopened as a diocesan retreat center – a capacity that it serves to this day. In 1984 the Office of Development was formed in the diocese, as well as the Office of Communications with the institution of The Western Kentucky Catholic, the official newspaper of the Diocese of Owensboro.
Events Bishop McRaith oversaw in 1985 included the first season of RENEW and the establishment of the Lay Ministry Formation Program at Brescia College. In 1986 he witnessed the formation of the Black Catholic Commission, as well as the Diocesan Pastoral Council Task Force and the building of the Bishop Cotton Apartments for retired priests. In that same year Bishop McRaith also released “Go and Do Likewise,” a pastoral document developed in response to the AIDS crisis, and joined the board of directors of Catholic Relief Services, which he served until 1992.
In 1987 the Diocese of Owensboro celebrated its 50th anniversary, RENEW 2000 began and Bishop McRaith oversaw the Office of Music established in the diocese. This was also the year that both the Catholic schools in Owensboro and West Daviess County began the process of consolidation.
The year 1988 saw fewer events numerically, but the effects made a big impact, with the closing of St. Mark’s Priory near Bowling Green, and the purchase of the property by the Fathers of Mercy religious order. With Bishop McRaith’s blessing, the Fathers of Mercy placed the Generalate and the Novitiate there.
In 1989 the Office of Planning was formed and the Owensboro Catholic Schools reopened after a consolidation. The school system included a middle school in the former Immaculate School building and elementary sites at Lourdes Parish, Blessed Mother Parish, St. Pius X Parish, Precious Blood Parish and St. Mary Magdalene Parish. That same year St. Mark Parish in Eddyville opened, meaning that every county in the diocese now had a Catholic church.
In 1990 Bishop McRaith oversaw the diocese divided into six lay deanery councils, and the Catholic Pastoral Center – home of the diocesan offices – relocated from 4005 Frederica St. to 600 Locust St. The Archives Office was also formed in the diocese that year.
In 1991 the Office of Stewardship was established, the Charitable Trust Fund established, and a diocesan synod was held Oct. 18-20. The only other synod held in the Diocese of Owensboro had been in 1943, and Bishop McRaith felt called have a second synod.
According to the May 14, 1990 minutes from the synod committee meeting, the synod would plan long-range for the diocese, develop a “greater sense of the diocesan Church,” renew the diocese spiritually, and help plan how the diocese would evangelize.
Additionally that year, a new church building was constructed for St. Elizabeth Parish in Clarkson, the Glenmary Sisters moved their national office to the City of Owensboro, and the local Cursillo movement started REC (“Residents Encounter Christ”) for female inmates.
In 1992 Bishop McRaith published the first Diocese of Owensboro Policy Manual Handbook and the Employee Policy Handbook, and saw an HIV/AIDS ministry begun under the guidance of Fr. Daniel Goff. Bishop McRaith also established that The Western Kentucky Catholic newspaper would be mailed for free to all parishioners across the diocese. 1993 marked the initiation of the bishop’s appeal, named the Disciples Response Fund, as well as the founding of the Office of African American Ministries, later renamed the Office of Black Catholic Ministry. That same year, Bishop McRaith oversaw the purchase of four properties to house the homeless, property which today makes up the Daniel Pitino Shelter.
In 1995 Bishop McRaith oversaw the formation of the Diocesan Social Concerns Committee, and in 1996 he formed the Office of Wisdom to better serve local Catholics ages 55 years old and older.
1997 marked the year that Bishop McRaith established the Office of Hispanic Ministry, based on the growing community of Hispanic Catholics in western Kentucky.
That year the diocese began preparations for the upcoming millennium, with plans for the Jubilee 2000 and saw the launch of Youth 2000 – a Eucharist-centered retreat for teens and young adults co-sponsored by the Office of Youth Ministry and the Marian Shrine Committee. The Youth 2000 idea began in a diocese in Texas, and the Diocese of Owensboro was happy to bring it to the local area.
In 1998 the Office of Television Ministry was formed, with Fr. John Meredith serving as director and Cliff Russell serving as broadcast consultant. Under the auspices of Gideon Productions, this office provided televised Sunday Mass to local viewers.
In 1999 the diocese continued preparations for the Jubilee 2000, leading to the year 2000’s Inter-Denominational Celebration held at the Owensboro Sportscenter.
Over the next few years Bishop McRaith saw Catholic Charities become licensed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky to provide adoption services, the Office of Safe Environment formed and the diocese’s Sexual Abuse Review Board named.
In 2002 the Diocese of Mandeville, Jamaica became “sister diocese” with the Diocese of Owensboro, to begin a sharing of resources and spiritual support.
In the years 2004-06 Bishop McRaith saw the Owensboro Catholic Schools reorganized to include a K-3 Campus and a 4-6 Campus, The Western Kentucky Catholic expanded to 48 pages to include a Spanish-language section, and the Office of Vocations became a full-time position, with Fr. Andy Garner as director.
In 2005 also the diocese said farewell to Pope John Paul II, who died on April 2, and welcomed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger who became Pope Benedict XVI.
In 2007 the diocese acquired Gasper River Catholic Youth Camp and Retreat Center in Bowling Green, as a way to provide the camp experience to youth in and around the Diocese of Owensboro. Also in 2007 Bishop McRaith celebrated his 25th anniversary of episcopal ordination, and a large Mass and celebration were held for him on Dec. 16 at St. Stephen Cathedral.
Besides a large crowd of laypeople and religious, the anniversary Mass was attended by the following visiting bishops: Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz of Louisville; Archbishop Thomas A. Kelly, retired archbishop of Louisville; Bishop Roger J. Foys of Covington; Bishop Ronald Gainer of Lexington; and Bishop David R. Choby of Nashville.
In the January 2008 issue of The Western Kentucky Catholic, Bishop McRaith thanked everyone for the celebration and wrote that “There is no doubt I am the most blessed bishop ever for all the kindness and support that I have received these past 25 years.”
The year 2008 marked the opening of the Permanent Diaconate Program in the diocese, with 20 men beginning the initial class. Fr. John Thomas was appointed the first director of the program. In August of that year Bishop McRaith also dedicated the new Divine Mercy Chapel of the Fathers of Mercy.
On Jan. 5, 2009, at age 74, Bishop McRaith announced that he had decided to retire and that his retirement had been accepted by Pope Benedict XVI. He cited his health as his main reason of retiring, telling the Messenger-Inquirer that “I knew in my head, but it’s hard to step back from a job I really loved.” In his February 2009 farewell letter in The Western Kentucky Catholic – the January paper had gone to press before the bishop’s resignation announcement – Bishop McRaith wrote, “I love you the Church of Western Kentucky. I end with a heart full of gratitude to you and to our good and gracious God for allowing me to serve you and serve WITH you for over 26 years.” He added in the letter, “I remember saying on December 15, 1982, ‘May the Lord give us many years together!’ Well, I can only thank God for answering that prayer.”
On Dec. 5, 2015, the Diocese of Owensboro held a celebration for Bishop Emeritus McRaith’s 80th birthday. In honor of Bishop McRaith’s dedication and servant leadership, Bishop William Medley found it fitting to rename the Catholic Pastoral Center at 600 Locust Street in Owensboro the “McRaith Catholic Center.”
Bishop McRaith’s other responsibilities over the years included serving as president of the Minnesota Catholic Education Association, and as a board member of Brescia University, the Daniel Pitino Shelter, the McAuley Free Clinic, and the Lourdes Hospital Foundation.
He was a member of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky as well as the Kentucky Council of Churches, and also served on numerous committees of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, including the ad hoc committee on stewardship.
Bishop McRaith was preceded in death by his parents, Arthur and Marie McRaith; his brother, James “Jim” McRaith; his sister, Jane Moening; niece, Shannon Ekeren-Moening; and nephew, Barry McRaith. He is survived by his sister, Margaret Mary Madden and the following nieces and nephews: Molly Wahlgren, Meaghen Madden-VanDyke, Matthew Madden, Mary Elizabeth Lehman, Tim McRaith, Dan McRaith, Brian Moening, and Sarah Moening.
On Thursday, March 23, a tractor-pulled wagon will process with the body of Bishop McRaith from Glenn Funeral Home (900 Old Hartford Rd.) to St. Stephen Cathedral (610 Locust St.). Mass at the Cathedral will take place at 12:05 PM (all times CST) with public visitation following until 8 PM. A Wake Service is scheduled for 6 PM at the Cathedral. On Friday, March 24, public visitation will take place at the Cathedral from 8 – 10:45 AM, with a Funeral Mass at 11 AM. Archbishop Joseph Kurtz from the Archdiocese of Louisville will preside with Bishop William F. Medley as concelebrant. Burial will follow at Mount Saint Joseph in Maple Mount, Kentucky.
Expressions of sympathy may be made in the form of donations to the Diocese of Owensboro in support of charitable work across the diocese and to Catholic Relief Services.